Inverted Gear Blog
On Saturday I stepped on the mat for the first time in three months. This is by far the longest layoff I had in BJJ career. The layoff was due to a combination of factors: sprained ligament in my knee, surgery to fix my mangled nose, and my son being born six weeks ahead of schedule. Layoffs are never fun, but somehow, I managed to make the most out of mine, and I was pleasantly surprised to feel like I never left.
Here’s what I realized: I felt better about my comeback because I used my downtime to work on other areas of my life and health. In the past, and I think many of us are guilty of this, we look at a layoff (for whatever reason) as an excuse to throw all of our self-development out the window, and we come back to the mats farther behind than we left.
This is my story:
Back in April, I injured the LCL on my right knee while on top side control (of all places). I was pinning my opponent's arm while setting up a baseball bat choke when my opponent went to try to roll me over my leg gave up and a loud pop echoed through the gym. I kept rolling, probably not the best idea, and my knee became stiff as soon as I cooled down. The next day I was limping, but thankfully, I could still use my rower and cycle on my Rogue fan bike.
Hillary was well into her third trimester at this point, so I decided to take some time off, and focus on three things, work on my cardio, rehab my knee, and lose some weight I been putting on.
I wrote a blog about how I have been ignoring aerobic training for the best part of a decade. I felt I didn’t have time, and—like many big guys—I just hated running. So, I did other things, mostly in the anaerobic realm. Spending three months working mostly on aerobic efforts was fascinating. I started with a rower, then added a Rogue Echo Bike, and most recently a Ski erg.
My resting heart rate is consistently under 50 beats per minute. I try to get my workout in the morning, and I feel it helps reign in my ADHD, making me much more focused throughout the day. The variety of machines keeps it interesting, and I feel I am able to recover better. It has become a huge part of my routine. I feel something is missing if I don’t make it to the basement to get some work in. Finally, it has kept me sane during my time without BJJ.
My mobility work has also continued. A few of my favorite drills like the 90/90 were put on hold as they aggravated my knee. I have been putting a lot of work on recovering my range of motion after the LCL sprain and focusing more on upper body drills to clear out my shoulders. Here are the main ones I been working on:
We have been following a keto diet while at home for the better part of two years. However, we would get off diet whenever we traveled, justifying it with the old when are we going to be here again? Let’s eat!
With the new baby and having the chance to be home to enjoy our family, we got back to a strict Keto diet. I realize it’s not for everyone, but the Keto diet combined with cardio and mobility work, my return from my layoff was much less difficult than it could have been.
In our lives, it’s easy to begin drifting away from our best-laid plans. Sometimes we have an excuse—like an injury or a newborn—but the same excuse for why we neglect our diets or our fitness programs can be what we use to get back on track. Feeling banged up? Check in on your mobility routine. Putting on some weight? Take a hard look at that diet.
It could be anything. BJJ will be there waiting for you when you are ready to come back, but try to come back a better version of you. Everything else in your life will be better as a result.
My jiu-jitsu journey has been a lot like my experience with Disney movies. When I was a kid, I thought I understood Disney movies, but when I rewatch them as an adult, I pick up on layers of jokes, hidden gems, and innuendos that whooshed over my bowl cut and Pokemon card collection. Jiu-jitsu has been a similar experience. I’ll come back to an idea I played with years ago only to discover that it is far more valuable and impactful than I first realized.
When I was a fresh blue belt, I felt pretty bad ass. I was young, in the best shape of my life, and training every day of the week and twice a day on weekdays. By virtue of athleticism and mat time alone, I was a handful for many of my purple belt training partners.
And then this quiet purple belt from Iceland joined us for a month. He hardly spoke, and when he did, it was a half-whisper. He didn’t look particularly threatening either—kind of scrawny with shy, reserved body language. The first time we got to roll, I figured I could at least get a few positions on him if not tap him out.
We touched hands. I sat back to pull guard. And then he walked around my guard into knee on belly.
Wait. How did he do that?
He armbarred me, so we reset.
Paying more attention this time, I set strong grips, but he put a hand on my hip, did a little shuffle, and there he was in knee on belly again.
After a full round of futility, the buzzer sounded. I asked him to explain what the hell he just did—because it seemed like pure sorcery—and he said, in his soft-spoken voice, “If I get a hand on your hip I can control your hip and then it’s not a problem to pass. I just have to control the hip.”
He took a second to show me what he meant before moving on to the next training partner, but it didn’t make sense to me. It seemed too simple. It clearly worked for him, but my attempts to make it work for me consistently failed. I gave up on the technique and stuck to my other guard passing techniques, a hodge podge of counters and grip breaks that would sometimes get me safely clear of my opponent’s legs.
By the way, that same purple belt competed in the open division of the ADCC later that year and beatJeff Monson. His name was Gunnar Nelson.
A few years after Gunnar showed me a glimpse of his wizardry, I was working on Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques and referencing other Victory Belt books for guidelines on instructional formatting and structure. I saw a similar position to what Gunnar had showed me in Marcelo’s materials and also in Andre Galvao’s Drill to Win. I took the technique into the gym, and suddenly it clicked. Now the position—a movement that Galvao calls the “hip & knee pin” in his book (pg. 148)—is the core of guard passing game. Whenever I am in guard, gi or no-gi, I want one hand on my opponent’s hip and one hand on my opponent’s knee. If I get that position, I feel like I just caught the Snitch in Quidditch.
My own jiu-jitsu journey is full of stories like these, and when I talk to black belts, they tell similar stories. They saw a technique at one point in their training and in the moment either did not understand it or understood it but could not possibly imagine how it would ever apply to their games. Then, several years later, the dusty memory of a long-discarded technique pops out of their memories like Jason popping out of Crystal Lake. Suddenly, it makes sense, and more importantly, it becomes a killer part of their games.
There are a lot of lessons you can take from this anecdote, but the most important one is this: Do your best to drill and learn every technique your instructor shows you, even if you cannot immediately see its value or application. If you give every jiu-jitsu idea a fair chance, then you are more likely to pick it back up when it comes back into your orbit two, three, or six years later.
Just because you don’t need the technique today does not mean you won’t need it tomorrow. Stay open minded. Stay studious. And be willing to revisit ideas again.
Summer is heating up, and the sun is back at its job of trying to kill us. You can add “heat stroke” to the list of ways you can black out in BJJ, next to chokes and accidental KOs. In this article, we’re going to talk about the common reasons someone passes out in BJJ and what you should do when it happens.
But first, an important rule: Tell your instructor when you have to leave the mats.
As an adult, you may balk at having to ask anyone for permission to go to the bathroom or step outside to take a phone call. You’re not in grade school and you shouldn’t need a hall pass. But I can assure you, as instructors, we do not keep track of your bathroom habits because we are control freaks -- we just want to make sure our students are safe.
What’s the risk of leaving line of sight of an instructor without telling them? I’ve had students pass out after wandering away, and if I had not had my “spidey sense” tingle to go find them, they could have laid there until someone else happened upon them. Thankfully, in my cases, nothing serious happened and it was just new students who were out of shape and couldn’t handle the warm up. But other instructors have told me about students going into private spaces without telling anyone and having heart attacks or strokes and not being discovered until someone else wandered by.
A responsible instructor won’t mind you saying a quick “Hey, I’ll be back in a minute” so they don’t have to wonder why the head count changed, so please do us that favor.
To protect against overheating, the main things to do are simply drink plenty of water throughout the day and take more breaks on very hot days if you’re training in a warehouse gym with no air conditioning or if you were exposed to the heat or the sun a lot before training.
You should also make sure you know how to spot and treat heat stroke and heat exhaustion for the safety of yourself and others. Here’s a handy infographic from -- of all places -- the Minnesota Department of Health:
We spend so much time trying to choke each other out that we’re bound to succeed eventually. The first time you choke someone out can be scarier for you than it is for the unconscious party. They may snore very loudly or convulse or foam at the mouth and roll their eyes back in their head while you look on in horror thinking you just killed them.
The good news is that as long as the choke is released relatively quickly after the person passes out, they will wake up just fine in about 10-20 seconds the vast majority of the time without any assistance. Their brain will “reboot” and they will come to, often with no idea they were unconscious.
Instead of looming over them and panicking so the first thing they see when they wake up is you freaking out, just remain calm and put them in the recovery position (which we will show further down in this post). If you are stepping in to help, it’s often better to send the other training partner away if they are freaking out.
The person regaining consciousness will usually be confused and unable to understand what is going on for a minute. They may think they are still in the middle of a match and try to keep fighting whoever is closest to them (this is why we see after the bell takedowns on MMA referees by semi-conscious fighters). My advice is to just calmly lead them over to a wall to sit against and act like the round ended or it’s time for a water break. Once they have their wits about them, you can tell them what really happened. (I also like to ask what song they heard when they were in dream land, because almost everyone will tell you they heard one.)
If you are interested in the anatomy of chokes and strangles -- and the semantics of whether to call them a “choke” or a “strangle” -- this reddit/r/bjj post goes into great (probably too much) detail: Chokes vs Strangle and Why We Go to Sleep
While most of us are not training MMA where blunt force trauma to the face is the goal, in regular BJJ we can all catch an accidental knee to the head or headbutt that makes us see stars. Whether or not you get hit so hard you are knocked out, you should be aware of the risks of concussions and how the effects can linger for much longer than a few hours. Read up on post-concussion syndrome and how it can cause mood and memory problems that last for weeks or even months.
The immediate first aid for when someone is knocked out from head trauma is the same as what is covered below with the other more serious medical problems.
If someone loses consciousness unexpectedly and you are not sure why, it could be a medical problem that needs more first aid than just waiting to see if they wake up or putting an ice pack on their head. Loss of consciousness can be caused by low blood pressure, low blood sugar, diabetes, heart problems, stroke, and other medical conditions. Explaining how to handle medical problems is beyond my expertise, but I recommend this article: First Aid for Unconsciousness
When someone passes out in BJJ, the “ standard solution” is to grab them by their feet and lift their legs in the air like you’re pumping blood from their lower body back up into their head.
As far as I can tell, this does not help at all, but because people will wake up in a few seconds no matter what you do, the practice persists.
To do what first aid training would actually teach you, the appropriate action to take is rolling the person on to their side in the recovery position, as shown here:
Give It a Try, They Said. It’ll Be Fun, They Said: How Learning Jiu-Jitsu Is Like Learning a Language
Until their little one came along, every time I turned around, it seemed our two beloved Boss Pandas were traveling to yet another far-flung locale, spreading good will, jiu-jitsu knowledge, and the latest training gear on most if not all the continents. Last year I got to follow suit, at least a little; I spent five weeks in Cascais, Portugal, just outside of Lisbon, with a side trip to Germany. I was there taking courses toward a counseling master’s degree as part of an overseas program my (U.S.-based) institution offers. So, I got some credits done while having an adventure. I still do not have nearly as many frequent flier miles as Hillary and Nelson, but I acquired enough on this trip to take me squarely outside my comfort zone.
I used to be quite fluent in German, and I worked with a tutor and the DuoLingo app to learn some Portuguese before my trip. Still, my grasp of neither language is anything to write home about, though I will say that being immersed in the cultures—and thanks to the patience and kindness of the people willing to practice with me—I made some progress. One thing I quickly realized pretty much as soon as I landed in Europe is that I needed a healthy sense of humor, specifically one directed at me. Ever the overachiever, on one day I even managed to screw up in two different languages.
First, I told an airline employee in German that my bag was “difficult” (“schwierig”) when I meant to say “heavy” (“schwer.”) You can use “schwer” to mean “difficult,” but not vice versa. That was when I was on my way back to Portugal after visiting a friend in Cologne for the weekend. Then when I got back, I tried to have a conversation in Portuguese with my taxi driver. We had talked about the many Catholic attractions in the area (Fatima, for instance), and so when he mentioned “Madonna” and “Sintra” (a town with a lot of history and beautiful architecture), I assumed he was talking about another such religious site. But actually, he was telling me that Madonna the pop star had come to Sintra to do a concert. He laughed and so did I, and I did the same thing with the baggage conversation. The airline employee and the cab driver were the umpteenth and umpteenth-and-first people to kindly correct me, and I truly appreciate that, at least in the abstract. Sometimes in the heat of things, though, I wish either I could say, “You knew what I meant,” or that I were better at this sh*t and did not need so much coaching.
It will come as a surprise to probably no-one that my experiences in trying to improve my language skills remind me of what it is like to try to improve my jiu-jitsu skills. With respect to German and Portuguese, by now I have a few phrases down pat, so if the conversation turns to those, I am golden. Want to talk about food in German or Portuguese? Want to know my name and where I am from? I can work with that. But venture into just about anything else—how to describe what I am studying, whether a five-ounce bird could carry a one-pound coconut—and I will nod and smile and pray there was not a question in that last barrage of cool-sounding but indecipherable noise.
I feel the same way with jiu-jitsu. Back in the day, when I was able to get people in my closed guard, I knew what to do, even if I was not that great at doing it. But put someone in side control on top of me, and I flailed around, becoming a physical manifestation of the phrase “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
I am not the first to conceive of jiu-jitsu as a language. As someone who has been around the game for a long time, I am a relatively fluent speaker now. This means I do not have to be as conscious of syntax and grammar because they come more easily to me now. In other words, I can generally participate in any conversation, even if the other participant has a more sophisticated vocabulary than I do, though I will always have an accent.
I am finding it helpful to make the comparison between my jiu-jitsu learning and my language learning because I am in the phase with the language learning where everything is hard and everyone else makes it look so easy and I will never get it and I may as well quit. So, thinking back to how hard jiu-jitsu was (and often still is) for me to learn is not just an exercise in masochism. Rather, it is a good reminder that the embarrassing and frustrating experiences never go away, but they do become fewer and farther between. The time is going to go by anyway, so I might as well try to become better at something while it does.
What’s the point? Well, when I am busy being the nail in a training situation, or when I am busy feeling like a nitwit in multiple languages, I would say there isn’t one. But even on those bad days, after I get through the training situation or embarrassing moment during which I said something wrong or inappropriate, I realize I survived and I learned something useful. And on the good days, like when I defend the sweep successfully after getting caught time after time, or when I crack a joke and it actually lands, that seems like a pretty good return on investment, and it makes me think that maybe I can figure this stuff out after all.
I was going to title this article The Universal Language, but I think it would be more accurately called something that refers to the universal experience of trying to learn something, which involves erring, trying again, erring a microgram less, and repeating ad nauseam.
Do you have this experience when you try to learn something new? Post your experiences to comments.
Running a jiu-jitsu program has been a dream of mine since I started training jiu-jitsu. I admired how my instructors taught their classes, and I saw how my heroes were releasing books and DVDs. I wanted to be a successful competitor, but the people in the sport who most had my respect were the ones directly impacting students with their ability to teach and coach.
This was well-before I had any coaching ability, of course. In my mind, it’s like a kid playing video games. You see how fun it is to play video games, so you make the leap to “wouldn’t it be cool to make video games?!”
My dream came true last year when I was invited to take over the jiu-jitsu program at a local MMA academy (which you can read a little bit about in my previous blog post). Less than a year has passed since I started in that role.
And we got flooded.
On June 20, Pittsburgh was hit by intensely localized rainfall that triggered flash flooding. The Pittsburgh region is not unfamiliar with flooding, but the speed of the rainfall took many business and homeowners by surprise, and one person died after abandoning her car and trying to walk home.
For the gym, this meant a flooding scene that felt like a scene out of The Shining. Water came rushing down over the hill in a wave. The creek nearby swelled. And the gym took on water.
The next morning, standing in four-inches of water, my heart broke. The owner, Khama Worthy, was emptying the water out of the gym one 12-gallon shop vac at a time while another friend of the gym worked to clear the drains. The facility—large enough to house two cages, a boxing ring, a mat area, a bag area, a fitness center, two locker rooms, a kids room, and a pro shop—was almost completely under water.
Compared to my dream, Khama’s was much bigger, and he risked everything to make it happen. He became the owner when I took over the jiu-jitsu program, which meant that he emptied his savings into buying the gym. For him, the gym was brand new and represented the future for his career and for his family. Flooding is strange this way. The way the muck spreads across a room, the way it drags against your feet when you try to walk through, the way a random keepsake will float by you as you try to clean up—it can feel like drowning, like you’ll never claw free of the disaster.
But we had no choice. We had to rebuild. So, we kept emptying water, moving the ocean one drop at a time.
And then the most incredible thing happened: People kept appearing. They saw the Facebook post, and all they needed to know was that Khama was in trouble. They showed up with boots on and equipment under their arms. Sometimes they hardly said a word. They would see where someone else needed a hand and would jump in to help. Students from across our programs worked side by side, and the mothers of children in our Little Ninjas program were some of the first people to arrive and the last people to leave (these moms are ride or die).
Everyone knew that this gym was Khama’s dream, but what I did not realize about a gym community is that the dream is shared among all of the students, even if no one recognizes it. Everyone that trains under that roof sees the gym as being an important part of their life in some way, whether they are pursuing professional MMA careers or love how a jiu-jitsu class can challenge and relax them after a long work day.
A disaster can bring what’s really important into focus, and I hope that in reading this story you can start to see those things in your own jiu-jitsu life without having to experience a disaster.
The next time you are on the mat, pause to take in the scene and reflect on how fortunate you are to have your instructor, your training partners, and a place to enjoy jiu-jitsu.